The Stuff of Life: A genetics course in a comic book

Copyright by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon from “The Stuff of Life” (2009)

A few years back, when my wife and I were moonlighting as amateur comic artists, we would set up our table at local comic conventions. At one of these, we found ourselves sitting not too far from a charming comic artist by the name of Zander Cannon. His black-and-white artwork was gorgeous to behold. But what really drew us to him was a modest hardbound book on his table, entitled The Stuff of Life: A graphic guide to genetics and DNA that he co-illustrated with Kevin Cannon and whose script was written by Mark Schultz. It turns out that illustrating educational comics is one of Zander’s true passions. Of course, we bought our own copy.

The Stuff of Life is a comic book that strives to introduce the layperson to the field of modern genetics. Its narrative is framed as a report delivered to the ruler of the squinches, an alien species trying to figure out human genetics. The squinches are suffering from some unspecified form of hereditary disease, and have apparently decided that it’s easier to crib from what humanity has learned about its genetics than to start their own genetics program from scratch. This amusing backstory weaves through the four main sections of the book: The molecular basis of genetics, cellular mechanisms of reproduction, Mendelian genetics, and modern applications.

There is plenty of science to be presented within the 150 pages of the book: Setting aside the science fiction backstory for a second, this is really a textbook for a college-level introductory genetics class, and I’d be surprised if it hasn’t already been used in that fashion by some enterprising professor. Each section treats its material carefully and with the attention to detail that it deserves. There are entire sections devoted to mitosis and meiosis, as well as to each of Mendel’s principles. To assist with placing the science in a historical context, whole-page panels at several points in the text explain in moderate detail the chain of discoveries and the scientists behind them that led to our current understanding of genetics. Modern applications in genetic engineering are also carefully explained, although the material in that section tends to become dated fast (as an example, the authors mention that “There is hope that the cost of personal genome sequencing can be reduced to a few thousand dollars…”. That was 2009, and already in 2013 we’re looking at sequencing a single person’s entire genome for around $800).

Given the inherent complexity of its content, the book’s explanations understandably tend to get long and intricate, so it’s a good thing that they’re accompanied by some delightful and inspiring illustrations. It’s one thing to encounter the occasional cell diagram in a textbook, it’s quite another to be given detailed, consistent illustrations that demonstrate a concept from beginning to end. The art style of the book is classic comic book black-and-white line art, with areas of solid black shadow. This style allows the illustrations to dispense with unnecessary detail in favor of highlighting the critical information. Functional structures such as enzymes are alternately represented as blobs of atoms, whimsically shaped tools, or cogs in a machine. Judicious doses of anthropomorphism also spruce up the otherwise dry science. Various enzymes, as well as strands of DNA and RNA often pop up as characters: mRNA is a worm-like dude wearing a backwards-facing baseball cap (it turns out to be a clever visual pun: that cap represents the “G cap” that actual mRNA strands begin with). A solid connection with our macro-scale world is also kept throughout. Most pages feature at least one illustration that isn’t a molecular representation – be it a shot of a couple holding hands symbolizing sexual reproduction, or a segue to the alien scientist making sure his leader understands the salient parts of the report. As a whole, the comic artwork genuinely helps deliver the content to its intended audience, keeping the science entertaining and relatively easy-to-follow.

My one quibble with the book is that the authors miss an opportunity to have a bit more fun by expanding on the aliens’ own genetic troubles. While doing so would introduce possibly too much science fiction to what is otherwise a pure science book, I kept expecting to find out more about those aliens at some point, if only in a footnote to the main text.

Somebody interested in learning biology who may otherwise be intimidated by textbooks will find this to be a valuable entry point to the field. While the comic book format may mislead some people into thinking that it’s all easy going, I believe that there’s genuine value in this kind of mix of comic book and textbook. It keeps its tone light and appropriate to the comic medium while not talking down to its readers. While researching this blog post, I found out that the authors have recently released another comic book on the subject of evolution. It’s on its way to me even as I’m writing this.

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Maciek Smuga-Otto

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